Researchers from Case Western Reserve University used a plasma electrolytic system to attain catalyst-free, highly selective synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and water
A team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University developed a new approach to create ammonia from nitrogen and water at low temperature and low pressure. In lab experiments, the team achieved the breakthrough without using hydrogen or the solid metal catalyst that is required in conventional processes. Plasmas are ionized clouds of gas that contain positive ions and free electrons that offer it the unique ability to activate chemical bonds at room temperature such as nitrogen molecule.
According to Julie Renner, a Climo Assistant Professor in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, this new process does not require high pressure or high temperature or hydrogen. Therefore, the process is scalable and the ideal kind of technology for smaller plants. Commercial ammonia is obtained from nitrogen and hydrogen with the help of an iron catalyst at high temperature and pressure. The team resurrected an element from a less-known Norwegian method that predated the Birkeland-Eyde process, which reacted nitrogen and oxygen to produce nitrates. The new approach is similar to electrolytic synthesis of ammonia, which is majorly preferred as an alternative to Haber-Bosch as it can be integrated with renewable energy. The team used a plasma that is energy intensive.
The process does not produce hydrogen gas. Production of hydrogen is considered the major bottleneck of other electrolytic approaches for formation of ammonia from water and nitrogen. The new process also does not use a solid metal catalyst, which possibly provides ammonia instead of hydrogen. Ammonia is formed at the interface of a gas plasma and liquid water surface in the system. However, the table-top batches of ammonia developed by the team are very small and the energy efficiency is still less than Haber-Bosch. According to the researchers, continued optimization, discovery, and development of a new process can lead to smaller, more localized ammonia plants that use green energy. The research was published in the journal Science Advances on January 11, 2019.
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